“We continue to advocate for clean water because it's not just for our communities. It's for everyone, and it's for everything.”
Across Canada, millions of people don’t think twice when turning on the tap. But Indigenous activist Tia Kennedy never takes a glass of water for granted.
As a member of both the Oneida Nation of the Thames and Walpole Island First Nation, located in southwestern Ontario next to the Great Lakes, her connection to water is ancient. Her advocacy for clean water, however, is the result of more recent injustices.
In 2022, the Oneida Nation of the Thames remains on a boil water advisory because of underfunded water treatment and distribution systems. And Walpole Island First Nation is still grappling with the consequences of water contamination perpetrated two generations ago.
“While my grandmother was growing up, they were dumping chemicals and strong pollutants into the waterways,” Kennedy said. “This is what eventually took the lives of my grandmother and her two sisters. They passed away from cancer. It was quite traumatic for different people in my family to lose three women so close together at such young ages.”
Meanwhile, a mere 14 miles away, another city in Ontario can safely fill up a cup straight from the faucet.
“It's not fair that we're the ones constantly fighting and putting ourselves on the frontline advocating for this water, and yet we're the only ones in Canada that don't have access to it,” Kennedy said.
Fossil fuel extraction methods, such as hydraulic fracturing (or fracking), chemical spills, and unsafe disposal of industrial pollutants by private corporations and the Canadian government, have severely affected water quality and supply in First Nation communities for the past 30 years.
More than two decades into the 21st century, at least 30 First Nations still lack access to clean drinking water, and some have no running water at all. The Neskantaga First Nation in northern Ontario has not had safe tap water since 1995. Delays in funding mean these issues may not be addressed again until 2026.
In 2021, Kennedy received a Future Rising Fellowship from Girl Rising as part of its first fellowship cohort in her quest to make change and raise awareness of the need for clean water. This life-changing experience helped her develop many creative talents and skills while working with professionals to produce a short documentary film about these injustices. The film is scheduled to be released this year.
“My film not only highlights the devastating impacts of the water crisis, but it also highlights the beauty and the resiliency of Indigenous peoples. We're not only survivors of the past, but we're integral pieces of the future of this planet,” said Kennedy, who is also considering law school as a way to create a healthier future for her communities.
Founder of Kiinew Kwe Consulting, Kennedy is already a youth activist, speaker and consultant who works with governments, corporations and communities to address discrimination and promote meaningful and effective interactions with Indigenous peoples. Her fight for clean water will only become more important as the planet’s climate changes, threatening access to clean water for millions or even billions of people around the world.
“We continue to advocate for clean water because it's not just for our communities. It's for everyone, and it's for everything,” Kennedy said.